CHORUS Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie,
And young affection gapes to be his heir;
That fair for which love groaned for and would die,
With tender Juliet matched is now not fair.
Now Romeo is beloved, and loves again,
Alike bewitchèd by the charm of looks;
But to his foe supposed he must complain,
And she steal love’s sweet bait from fearful hooks.
Being held a foe, he may not have access
To breathe such vows as lovers use to swear,
And she as much in love, her means much less
To meet her new-belovèd any where:
But passion lends them power, time means, to meet,
Temp’ring extremities with extreme sweet.
The current Cambridge edition tacks this on to the end of Act 1; Arden 3 helpfully identifies it as [2.0]. Whatever it’s called, it is – as editors point out – commonly omitted in performance. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. Why’s it there, then? Written to cover action? Possibly. It’s not going to take Juliet long to get to the upper stage (although there are perhaps also musicians to get out of it?), but one possibility might just be that there’s a prop tree or trees to get on, given the references to trees and the orchard in the scene which follows. I’m pretty uncommitted to this suggestion, but it’s a possibility. Just.
It’s certainly not as good as the Prologue. But it’s doing some interesting things, over and above reminding the audience of the story so far, as well as what’s about to happen next. There’s the contrast of youth and age (a glance back at Capulet’s gallantries, old desire?) and the language of inheritance, again, even in the metaphor describing Romeo’s change of heart. Fair is used to refer to Rosaline, but she’s unnamed, gone, simply a place holder now that Romeo’s love for someone else is requited – and that requital is there in matched, again, alike, as well as in the formal structures of the sonnet. Romeo’s not going to complain to Juliet, in the modern sense, but rather speak plaintively. (I think it’s interesting that foe, repeated twice here, picks up the Romeo / only / known / loathed assonance from the lines.) It is, obviously, a sonnet (maybe Shakespeare was just doodling them at this point? any hint of downtime, there’s a sonnet), so its compression, especially in the strongly alliterative penultimate line and the chiastic last line, gathers together at least some of the energies of the first act. It’s a moment of rest, perhaps, but it’s a dynamic pause, because – again – we know that something is about to happen, a sweet meeting. The language of extremity in the final line is important, and ironic: the desperation of the circumstances can indeed be overcome and alleviated, but the solution may itself go too far.